Korea DPR can look back on 2006 as a truly golden year, encompassing as it did a first-ever world title at the FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup as well as continental championships at the AFC Youth Championship and Asian Games .

These achievements certainly combined to leave 2007 with a tough act to follow, and yet hopes of another year to remember received a significant boost at the weekend when the nation's U-16 women's team stormed to yet another Asian title at the AFC U-16 Women's Championship in Malaysia.

The six-team event was the first of the qualifying tournaments for the inaugural FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup , and the North Koreans were joined in booking their tickets to New Zealand by beaten finalists Japan and neighbours Korea Republic, who finished third. There was no doubt, however, that the lion's share of the plaudits fell to Ri Un-Ham's victorious young side, who emerged from the competition with an unblemished record showing four straight wins and with a goal tally of 15 for, two against.

Thailand and Japan were beaten 7-1 and 1-0 respectively in the group phase, Korea Republic seen off 4-1 in the semi-finals , while the unfortunate Japanese - Korea DPR's final opponents in each of their three recent continental successes - could do nothing to prevent their powerful and disciplined opponents cruising to a 3-0 win as the tournament reached its climax.

The title represented a collective triumph for Ri's well-drilled outfit, and though an individual star-in-the-making also emerged in the shape of Yun Hyon-Yi - the tournament's MVP and top scorer with seven goals - the North Korean coach was keen to downplay his players' technical attributes. "The players are actually not so good," was Ri's surprisingly critical reaction to their convincing final win, "but because they have loyalty in their hearts to Korea, they were able to win."

'I love watching them play'
While the victory left Korea DPR's now-traditional travelling army of drum-beating fans to celebrate long after the final whistle, Japan and their followers retreated from Kuala Lumpur's MPPJ Stadium to contemplate where it all went wrong in a tournament that promised so much. Hiroshi Yoshida's side had, after all, been universally lauded as the most technically proficient of all those on show in Malaysia, yet there was no denying that they found themselves out-muscled in the final by the robust North Koreans.

"Korea are physically bigger than us and we need to learn to play against bigger opposition," Yoshida conceded afterwards. "We need to improve our technical skills, physical ability and speed. If we can do that, we can become a good team. I am not happy with our loss today but the good thing to come out of it is that we can see where we need to improve."

With a couple of 13-year-olds in their youthful ranks, Japan are sure to improve with time, and there was certainly enough to suggest that if Yoshida can address the chinks in his side's armoury, they might yet prove a force to be reckoned with in New Zealand. Kelly Cross, co-ordinator of the AFC Technical Study Group, was certainly of that opinion. "Japan are very impressive in terms of all-round technical ability, tactical ability and one-on-one ability," said the Australian. "I love watching them play. They have a lot of young players and, as they develop, they are going to be a formidable team."

Korea Republic, led by their influential captain Ji So-Yun, are also hopeful of improving by the time the FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup comes around, this after requiring penalties to beat China to the third qualifying slot following a nervy 1-1 draw. The outcome was hard to take for the Chinese, who had beaten the South Koreans 3-1 during their group phase, but victorious coach Kim Yong-Ho insisted that Asia's third and final representative at New Zealand 2008 will do their continent proud.

"There are players who couldn't come to Malaysia because of injury, they can come back into the squad and make us stronger," he said. "When we lost to China the first time we were very nervous, but today we played much better and were able to fight back."